CHAT WITH CALEB PIRTLE III

 

Caleb Pirtle III lives in the present but prefers the past. He has written more than 85 books, mostly travel and historical nonfiction, but has focused on fiction for the past decade. He has produced the Ambrose Lincoln thrillers, set against a backdrop of World War II, the Boomtown Saga, three novels concentrating on the discovery of oil in East Texas during the Great Depression, and The Man on the Run series featuring rogue CIA agent Roland Sand. Pirtle lives in Fort Worth with his wife Linda and standard poodle, Piper.

Time to chat with Caleb!

What is your latest book?

My latest book, Eulogy in Black and White, will be released May 1, 2022. It is the story about a stranger come to town, a stranger who wanders into Magnolia Bluff in the Texas Hill Country and finds a job cleaning the press and sweeping out the town’s newspaper office. Graham Huston has no car. He walks to work. He spends a lot of time in the cemetery. And he discovers that almost every soul in Magnolia Bluff is a lost soul who has a secret. The town lives in fear of May 23. Someone always dies on May 23. A violent death. Murder. But which secret triggers a serial killer to act on the same day of each year? Everyone is afraid. Everyone is a suspect. And Huston just may be cursed with the most explosive secret of all.

Is your recent book part of a series?

Eulogy in Black and White is book two in a series: The Magnolia Bluff Crime Chronicles. A group of ten authors have joined together to write the series, which debuts in April of 2022. We have established a fictional town. All of the books will be centered around the life and times of Magnolia Bluff. And we will all be using the same characters who populate the small town. A new book will be released each month from April through December, written by CW Hawes, Cindy Davis, James R. Callan, Richard Schwindt, the writing team of Roxanne Burkey and Charles Breakfield, Kelly Marshall, Linda Pirtle, Jinx Schwartz, and me. There’s trouble brewing every month in a town where the size of the population is decreasing while the size of the cemetery is always increasing.

You’ve written a lot of books. Do you have a favorite?

I’ve been a writer all of my life. As soon as I realized I was too ignorant to dig ditches, I became a writer, working on newspapers large and small, as travel editor of Southern Living Magazine, and as editorial direct for a Dallas custom publisher. That means I’ve churned out a lot of words and published more than 85 books. During my early career, I wrote primarily travel and historical books, all nonfiction. For the past decade, I’ve turned my focus to fiction, including the Ambrose Lincoln historical thrillers set against the backdrop of World War II and the Boomtown Saga, a series of historical mysteries built around the discovery of oil in East Texas during the Great Depression. My favorite books are probably the Boomtown books, Back Side of a Blue Moon, Bad Side of a Wicked Moon, and Lost Side of an Orphan’s Moon.

I grew up on the cusp of the East Texas oil boom. My father worked in the oil patch and I heard stories day after day about those early day wildcatters who dared to drill in land where the big oil companies had hit 17 dry holes. Dad Joiner hit a gusher just outside of my hometown, Kilgore, and broke the economic back of the Great Depression. Dad raised money to drill by reading obituaries and driving to Dallas to meet with rich widows. He said, “Every woman has a certain place on her neck, and if I kiss it just right, she starts writing checks.” I could not let those stories go to waste. Thus, from out of the past, was born my Boomtown Saga.

Do your books begin with ideas for characters or plots? Something else?

My novels are always character driven. I have no idea what the plot is when I begin. I sit down, write the first sentence that pops in my head, and see where it takes me. Like real life, what happens is never as important as the people who make it happen. I don’t know who all of my characters are when I start on a new novel. I just let them come into the story when they’re ready, and then I don’t move forward until I let them tell me their backstory. I just follow along and write down what they do and what they say. They know the story better than I do. It’s really happening to them. I’m just standing on the sidelines watching. And on more than a few occasions, I’ve had a minor character walk on for a scene, then refuse to leave. Those are the characters I like best. What do they know that I don’t know? And when will I find out? On a 300-page mystery, I’m usually 280 pages into the novel before I know who committed the murder, and it’s so clear, I wonder why I didn’t realize it 200 pages earlier. I feel as though the writer is the camera.

We must let the reader see the scene as clearly as we do. So I probably add more description than some writers do. But the critical part of a character is not how he or she looks, but what the point of view character is thinking as the story races along. I think the primary difference between a bad story and a good story is the way we handle internal dialogue. That’s what makes books better than movies. On the motion picture screen, we see the characters, but never know what they are thinking.

Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?

I edit while I write. My process is really quite simple. I write my 1,500 words, then come back the next day and edit and re-write those 1,500 words until I have the scene or scenes exactly the way I want them, and then I’m back into the heart and soul of the story and can see the next 1,500 words waiting to be written. Sometimes, I leave the last sentence I write for the day as an incomplete sentence. By finishing it the next day, I am again thrown back into the story.

Once in a while, after finishing a book, I care so much about the characters that I write a sequel for them in my head. Do you ever know what happens to your characters after the book ends?

I don’t know what happens to my characters when the book ends. But I worry about them. I want to know where they are, what they’re doing, what kinds of danger are the facing, and will their next mile be their last mile. That’s why I write series. My characters may not like me, but I have really grown attached to them and just don’t want to let them go. What if their next adventure is better than their last adventure, and I miss it? I’m convinced I should be there. So I sit down and write the next book in the series.

How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?

I think a character’s name is really important. For example, I believe the main character’s name should be different enough to be remembered. That’s why I chose Ambrose Lincoln for my lead character in the World War II thrillers. And Eudora Durant is the heroine in the Boomtown Saga. You don’t see a lot of men and women known as Ambrose or Eudora running around these days. I don’t change a character’s name, but sometimes the character does.

In Night Side of Dark, the beautiful blonde Partisan fighter in Poland had been named Lisa. But when she stepped into her first scene, she introduced herself as Devra. And Devra she became. I don’t know where the name came from, but I checked a list of Polish first names and, sure enough, I found Devra. When I wrote Last Deadly Lie about the trials, tribulations, and battles connected to a church fight in the Deep South, I had one character who bore the brunt of ridicule, humiliation, and animosity in his determination to get rid of the preacher. He finally loses the fight and is left in shame and disgrace. It was my wife who pointed out to me that I had given him the last name of “Lynch.” She thought I did it on purpose. I didn’t. The subconscious is a powerful tool to have.

How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?

I have written a lot of nonfiction that required mountains of research. However, I find that I do just as much research for a novel. The story may be fiction. But I think it is more believable when you connect incidents within the novel to actual events, especially when writing historical fiction as I do. I learned early on when Ambrose was carrying a Glock into Germany in 1939. My editor called and said, “Sorry, but the Glock wasn’t invented until the 1950s.” I learned a hard but timely lesson. From then on, I have tried to tie everything in the story to a thread of reality, whether it’s weapons, cars, music, or clothing. Never have a train traveling to a town that has no railroad tracks. And what kind of press did newspaper publishers use in 1931? I fear some reader will ferret out my mistake, and my credibility is shot. In Night Side of Dark, a train roars into Pulawy, Poland, to pick up a load of Jewish families and carry them to a work camp, a death camp. I researched until I found the name of the company who owned the actual train that went to Pulawy. Most will probably think the name is fiction. But I know it’s true, and that makes me feel better.

Do you have any secrets for effective time management?

I think my years of working for a big city newspaper has left me terribly regimented in my writing schedule. I worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which had the largest circulation of any newspaper in Texas. I worked the police beat. I needed to be in the office at 9 o’clock in the morning. I went to work at four o’clock. Why? In case a big crime story happened overnight, I needed to be at the police station to interview the police officers and detectives who handled the case before they went home at five. I had four deadlines a day. I could not afford to miss any of them. I realized that at a certain time every day, I had a job to do. I still feel that way. I get up every day at five o’clock and load our Website with the indie books we are promoting that day. At 8:30, I run all of our Website stories for the past two days, along with some of our own books, through social media. At 10 o’clock, I clear out emails and answer the messages I have received. At 11 o’clock, I spend an hour researching information for the book I’m writing. At noon, I eat. At one o’clock, I read on a book I intend to review. At 2 o’clock, I sit down to write for the next three hours. No phones. No distractions. One break.

I walk my dog for two miles at three. I re-write and write until I am another 1,500 words into the story. I hear a lot of writers say, “I’ll write when I have time.” You never have time. You make time. You carve out an hour or more at the same hour every day, and tell yourself, “Now, I will write.” Don’t look for any distractions. You will certainly find them. For those who work every day? I tell them to spend an hour and write two or three pages every night. I can guarantee that the story they write will be much more entertaining than anything they see on television.

What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received? The best? Any advice you’d like to offer to readers?

The worst advice I’ve ever received? I hear it over and over at writers conferences. Speakers stand for hours and list the rules for writing. Rules for writing an opening sentence. Rules for writing dialogue. Rules for writing point of view. Rules for writing first person. Rules for writing romance or a mystery. Rules for how long or short a chapter should be.

The best advice I’ve received came from Neil Gaiman who believes there are no rules. He said: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

I presently live in North Fort Worth, Texas. If I moved, it would be to some small town in New Mexico. There is something magical and mystical about New Mexico. You feel it as soon as you drive across the state line. I think it has something to do with the spiritual past of the Native Americans who found a home in the desert and a path to an otherworldly realm somewhere beyond the high country.

What’s your favorite film of all times? Favorite book?

My favorite film of all time, the one I have watched so often I can quote dialogue along with the characters, is  To Have and Have Not. Why does it fascinate me? Well, first, there’s never been a heroine quite as sultry as a nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall in her first movie. Bogart is Bogart, and that’s enough. But what really fascinates me is that the film is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and the screenplay was written by William Faulkner, two brilliant writers who thoroughly disliked each other.

Care to brag about your family?

My wife, Linda, was a long-time English teacher who moved up through the ranks to become a high school principal. She never worried about the six-foot, five-inch, two hundred and seventy-five pound thugs. She said, “Deep within their chest beats the hearts of seventeen-year-olds, and if you can outsmart a seventeen-year-old, you don’t need to be in education.” When she retired, she could never understood why I spent a great deal of time in front of the word machine spitting out novels. So I dared her to write a book. She did, a nice little cozy mystery called The Mah Jongg Murders. She sold a bunch. She had a lot of friends asking when the next one would be finished. It became an addiction Linda could not escape. She has now published four cozy mysteries and has two more in the works. There is only one difference between us. I write every day. She writes on Wednesday.

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CHAT WITH MJ LaBEFF

MJ LaBeff is an American author best described as the girl-next-door with a dark side. MJ grew up in northeastern Ohio but traded snow for sunshine and moved to southern Arizona where she lives with her husband and two dogs. She’s drawn to writing suspense novels, featuring complicated characters and twisted plot lines that will keep readers turning page after page. When she’s not writing or plotting her next novel, MJ enjoys reading, running, lifting weights, and volunteering for the American Cancer Society.

What is your latest book?

My latest book is Last Spring’s Stranger which was released on January 12, 2021. It’s part of the Last Cold Case series. In this fourth book, I’ve upped the stakes for Homicide Detective, Rachel Hood.

Secrets can have deadly and life altering consequences. The legend of Verch’s Hollow has intrigued the residents of Snug Harbor, Ohio for generations. Myths about the abandoned property abound. When a teenage girl is murdered in the Hollow, her gruesome death threatens to expose a secret from Homicide Detective Rachel Hood’s past. Forced to face the truth of her deception, she reopens a cold case that could jeopardize her career. A victim of adolescent cyber-bullying, messages fill her personal inbox with threatening undertones from years ago. Do keep evidence and share it with an authority.

Enter FBI Agent Nick Draven an occult crimes specialist and Hood’s fiancé. As they delve deeper into the sender’s motive, Rachel has to confront the harsh reality she left behind over twelve years ago: a murdered friend, Tina; a glimpse of the killer at the scene of the crime, who she can’t identify despite her psychic empathy; and her own involvement with the evening’s sinister events.

What are the special challenges in writing a series?

My goal with each book in the series is not to have any spoilers. I want a reader to be able to read book 2 or 4 and have just enough information from a previous book that will encourage them to go back and read the others. That can pose challenges but I’ve found clever ways around it. The other challenge is keeping all of the main characters back stories straight and other details. I’m a big fan of character enneagrams so I rely on these as my guide along with notes regarding a character’s physical looks, ticks, catch phrases and so on. If you’re writing a series I strongly encourage taking the time to keep a journal of the characters.

How many unwritten books are in your head?

At the moment two. I have an idea for a single title thriller that I’m really excited about and looking forward to writing in the future but after I finish Murdered Last Summer book 5 of the Last Cold Case series; I’ll probably write Disappeared Last Fall book 6.

How do you decide which ones come to life now and which ones stay on the back burner?

Great question and until July 2021 I would have replied: as long as MuseItUp Publishing want more books in the Last Cold Case series, I’m committed to writing those first and then fitting in a side project. Unfortunately, MuseItUp closed its doors and so now…dun…dun…dun…I’m on my own! When I received the news via email it was a heartbreaking moment. The publisher sent such a sincere and heartfelt email, making it evident how sad she was to be closing the company. I was blessed that she worked very closely with me so that my books could easily be published again once she “took them down.” Although I was devastated losing my publisher, the experience with them until the very end was more than I could have anticipated. They provided me with formatted manuscripts so that I could release the books on my own in digital and print, and I was able to retain the original cover art. I realize this might not always be the case.

Upon the advice of a friend, I used Draft2Digital to launch the eBooks to all ebook sellers except for Amazon. She advised that it’s best to use Kindle Direct Publishing. I was familiar with KDP as my first book Mind Games was self-published via it. Uploading the manuscripts and cover art on either platform was quite easy!

The challenge is that I don’t know how to format a manuscript and I’m not a graphic designer; I’ll leave that heavy lifting to the experts! So, as long as I have formatted manuscripts and book covers I can self-publish. Again, I was lucky that my former publisher provided all of this to me. Formatting a manuscript is tricky business, I’d encourage any author to work with a professional so that the final product is beautiful in digital and/or print. Same goes for choosing a cover artist to design your book cover.

My hat is off, and I courtesy to the authors out there who can do it all. You are creative beings and true entrepreneurs. You are my heroes!

The biggest piece of advice I can give to any author in this type of situation is to ask your publisher to sign a reversion of rights agreement. If it weren’t from some really close author friends (who helped me during this difficult time) I might have not started with this first step. I had multiple books with MuseItUp. I had signed 5 contracts with them- 4 for the eBooks in the series (3 of the 4 contracts included print books), and there was a separate contract for the series. I had to ask for my rights back for the 4 books plus the series. Why is this important? There’s always a chance of running into a stumbling block when an author re-releases books that were once with a publisher. I was cautioned that Amazon for example might ask me for reversion of rights letters.

I had been nearly halfway through writing book 5 of the series when I received the news but I continued writing. I can’t say what the future holds for Homicide Detective, Rachel Hood and FBI Agent, Nick Draven. Perhaps I’ll start writing Disappeared Last Fall book 6 or that single title thriller tentatively titled, Dead End.

 

What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

Many years ago I attended an in person workshop given by a widely acclaimed author who told us writers in the room- never use the verb “was” in a sentence. At this point in my writing career, I had completed writing a third book and was working on a fourth. I remember going home and painstakingly working on eliminating “was” from my novel, Haunting Lyric. At my wits end, I called another author friend and she chastised me for believing such nonsense.

C’mon! I understand the advice given to choose a solid verb and avoid using “to be” and other lazy verbs and do your best to avoid adverbs but as a writer you also need to be mindful of how people speak and think. Characters are human beings of our creation so bring them to life appropriately. How’d ya like that? I used “to be” and “was” in my response, HaHa!

BTW, Haunting Lyric has suffered through so many edits and revisions from me that I had an editor say, “I feel like the author has chosen her words too carefully.” No kidding! It remains unpublished.

The best?

New York Times Bestselling author Vicki Lewis Thompson offered me the best advice. She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Just write.”

Any advice you’d like to offer to writers?

I give writers the same advice she gave me. Just write. There are plenty of rules to learn about but the best thing you can do for yourself is just write. Get the story out and then make it shine during the editing and proofreading process. I also encourage writers to join a professional organization at the national and local level even if you don’t write in that genre. There are so many opportunities to learn and grow and of course meet other writers and authors.

I’m a member of Sisters in Crime and when I first started writing I was a national and local chapter member of Romance Writers of America (RWA) for 8 years. I learned so much from RWA and had the opportunity to pitch to agents and editors. If you’re familiar with my books, you know I write dark thrillers but the advice, workshops, and fellow writers and authors I met through RWA shaped my career and inspired my confidence.

One more piece of advice, find a good critique partner or critique group to read your work. You’ll want them to be familiar with the genre you’re writing and provide gentle guidance and advice.

What are some of the crazy things people have said to you upon learning you are an author? How have you responded?

I guess I’ll start by saying that when someone asks, “What do you do?” My reaction isn’t to say, “I’m a writer.” I work in the financial services industry so I usually reply with the name of my employer. When someone does know I write and mentions it, I’m always a bit bashful. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about my books or writing but sometimes people get a little starry eyed. They don’t realize I’m not “big time stuff.” Of course, my close friends know what a time consuming commitment writing books is for me and that I’ve enjoyed small rewards along the way, but everyone does not know my name. If ya know what I mean!

Recently, I was talking with a neighbor and he was introducing me to some other neighbors and said, “It’s really exciting to have an author in the neighborhood.” I could feel the blush rising on my cheeks. What could I say or do? I just smiled and said, “Thank you.”

The only other funny thing that happened to me was after the Tucson Festival of Books a few years ago. I was shopping at Macy’s with a friend and a woman stopped me and said, “Oh my gosh, you’re that author I met at the festival.” I’m certain if the event hadn’t just been the previous weekend she would’ve walked right past me. We briefly chatted, and I was happy to hear she was already enjoying one of my books. It was a surreal moment to have been remembered.

Care to brag about your family?

Two men who inspire me daily are my husband and my dad.

My husband is smart and a risk taker. He sets out to do something and does it. Failure is never an option with him. He’s the kind of person who makes things happen. I admire his tenacity and confidence, kindness and generosity.

My dad is a first generation American whose parents were immigrants from Croatia. Deda, my dad’s father worked in a coal mine and brick yard, and my dad discovered how physically demanding those jobs were early in his life. He learned English while going to school and after graduating from high school went to college. He earned an Associate’s Degree in Business. Although, he had planned to acquire a four year Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting being married, working fulltime and going to college was hard and another opportunity outside of the bookkeeping job he had presented itself. My dad was very successful as a car salesman and eventually went on to start his own Ford dealership. I marvel at his entrepreneurial spirit and grit to walk away from a great job.

What I’ve learned from both of them is that you have to believe in yourself because if you don’t, no one will.

If you had a million dollars to give to charity, how would you allocate the funds?

I would donate one million dollars to the American Cancer Society and allocate funds for research grants to advance medicine and for travel expenses to help people living in remote areas that are in need of transportation and housing while undergoing treatment in a nearby city.

If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have what would it be?

I like old cars. If I could have another skill I’d like to be a mechanic and own a ’78 Vette and other classic cars. I think it’d be fun to work on a classic.

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THE WAITING HOUSE: A Novel in Stories

 

 

Hello, Friends,

My eleventh book, The Waiting House:  A Novel in Stories, is here. The title is quite appropriate, as I’ve waited a long time to get it out.

Cover art and design by Shykia Bell

Every time I publish a new book, I like to write a blog explaining how it came to be. As a multi-genre author (with leanings toward literary and contemporary fiction), I put a lot of thought (agonizing contemplation) over what to write next.

I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from my themed short-story collection, Hotel Obscure, where the same characters appear in different stories; many readers telling me that the book read to them like a novel. While it’s not a novel, it was my intention to give it that feel. So, when I decided to do a follow-up book, I thought I’d torture myself by raising the bar and this time, write a novel-in-stories / A Novel in Stories.”

In Writer’s Digest (2008), Scott Francis, a former editor and writer at WD Books, explains what a novel-in-stories is:

“A novel-in-stories is a book-length collection of short stories that are interconnected. (One of the very first examples of this genre is The Canterbury Tales; a more recent example is The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank.) A novel-in-stories overcomes two key challenges for writers: the challenge of writing a novel-length work, and the challenge of publishing a book-length work of unrelated short stories. (Few publishers are willing to publish a short-story collection from an unknown writer.) So, the novel-in-stories helps you sell a story collection like you would a novel—as long as the interconnected nature of the stories is strong and acts as a compelling hook. Another advantage to novels-in-stories is that they afford you the opportunity to publish pieces of your novel in a variety of literary magazines, which might attract the attention of an editor or agent. (Editors and agents often troll literary publications looking for new talent to publish or represent.)”

When I began writing this, I asked myself at regular intervals if I was crazy. Would I be able to do this? It was tough to come up with unique stories and tie them to an overall story arc. I’ll admit it … I thought about quitting, but not being a quitter, I kept pushing myself, and then … finally … it all began to come together.

I’d written two novels after Hotel Obscure, so I had a lot of time to think about where to set this next collection. As it turns out, I really needed the time because I wanted a setting that I could see and that I felt passionate about. As I began to write, while I didn’t plan on it, The Waiting House took on a different tone than Hotel Obscure, with a decidedly Twilight Zone theme to it … something I never planned on doing, even though one story in HO fits that bill.

Graphic by Kathleen Harryman

Here’s the blurb:

Once an opulent hotel for lovers of the Hollywood lifestyle, today the imposing building survives, somewhere, as an apartment house for those who wait. Not all know what they’re waiting for, but the residents live in flawed concert with those of undetermined existence, among relics of the past, as they wait for answers, for lost loved ones, and for purpose.

While the stories feature different characters, many of whom are recurring, each tale couples with its own unique reality … and is narrated by Conrad, the “grand master.” There is an overall story arc: part literary fiction, part Twilight Zone … both with a healthy dose of dark humor.

If you step inside, you’ll meet Ava Elisabeth, now in her 80s. After 40 years in Paris, she has returned. But why? Darah, the owner, is tormented by the sudden reappearance of her estranged mother, Millicent.

Kenny finds a way to overcome the despair of his missing wife. Fiona lives in the shadow of her once-famous, movie-star mother. Former Santa, Alejandro, punishes himself with solitude and sadness. A disturbed woman, Carolyn, waits for her TV prince to come. And Lee is tortured by random people who slide down walls near his fourth-floor apartment. Under the same roof, each soul has a different story … but all live in The Waiting House.

I’ll leave you with that as I go off to imagine a possible third collection … one that will also take much thought to develop. In the meantime, I’ll be starting a new novel.

As are all of my books, The Waiting House: A Novel in Stories is available in paperback, Kindle, and is free to read on Kindle Unlimited.

Best wishes,

 

Lisette

The Kindle and paperback editions are available here:  (universal link)

 

 

 

 

 

CHAT WITH ANNIE WHITEHEAD

Annie is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and is on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) Editorial team and is senior reviewer at Discovering Diamonds. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017 and is now a judge for that same competition. She has also been a judge for the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Short Story Competition. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books.

Time to chat with Annie!

What is your latest book?

It’s called The Sins of the Father and it’s set in a time of feud in seventh-century England.

Is your recent book part of a series?

Yes, it’s the second in a two-book series which began with Cometh the Hour, the story of Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia and his struggles to keep his kingdom and his womenfolk safe. The new book tells the story of his sons and daughters and it’s a tale of love, loss, warfare, revenge and hope.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?

I think it chose me, actually. I’ve always wanted to write, and began writing stories around the age of eight, but my degree was in history, specializing in the early medieval period, so it was natural that at some point the two interests would merge. I had an amazingly inspirational tutor, and I began to fall in love with the pre-Conquest period. I suppose even then, ideas were brewing about these wonderful characters and the notion of bringing them to life in fiction. They spoke a different language and lived a long time ago, but their stories are incredible, and exciting, and I try to present them as real people, so there is no myth or magic in my books (though there is the odd Viking!)

Do your books begin with ideas for characters or plots? Something else?

My fiction until now has been based on real life people, so for me it’s a bit of both. A person I’ve researched from history will ‘speak’ to me and suggest that their story is ripe for a fiction treatment. Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t. There are some people who hide from me and I can’t really get a handle on what their personality might have been like, while others appear before me almost fully formed, like Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians. I say fully formed, but I actually started her story with her childhood. I often do that with my characters, because to me that’s where the character formation really happens.

Often, while I’m writing, I’m surprised when a word pops into my head that I never use in real life … and sometimes, it’s a word I didn’t even realize I knew. Yet there it is, wanting to become a part of my novel. Does this ever happen to you? If so, what do you make of it?

Yes! I haven’t really thought about this but it has happened to me. I suppose it must just be a case of dredging something up from the sub-conscious. Given that I’m writing about the early medieval period, I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ll need words that I wouldn’t necessarily use in everyday conversation, but at some point in my education (or more likely from my mother) I’ve picked up words and phrases and kept them stored somewhere at the back of my brain.

Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?

I do an awful lot of editing as I go. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, I hate first drafts, so as soon as the opportunity arises to make that first draft into an edit, I’ll take it! Secondly, I like to keep the main structure of the book a good shape as I’m writing, otherwise I feel it will all be too messy to come back to in edits.

How many unwritten books are in your head? How do you decide which ones come to life now and which ones stay on the back burner?

I think I currently have about three novels, three novellas, five short stories and two nonfiction books in my head! Sometimes I attempt to work on more than one project at a time but it never works out; one always pushes past the others. I think that’s really how I choose what to work on – it’s the project that’s exciting me the most at the time.

How much of your own personality goes into your characters?

I don’t know that any of it really does. But certainly I find that, sub-consciously, a lot of my experiences go into them. There seems to be a theme of belonging/wanting to get home/stay home running through my books and this might be because I’ve moved around so much that I can never answer the question, “Where are you from?”

Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

I do usually have an ending that I head towards and I never have a title until I’ve finished the book, where I then have to spend hours brainstorming as I find it hard to come up with titles. However, with my new book, The Sins of the Father, I had the title before I wrote a word, and I had to rewrite the ending, so things have gone a bit topsy-turvey this time around!

What else have you written?

I’ve written four novels: To Be A Queen is the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She was one of only two Anglo-Saxon women to lead a country and she did it in the face of Viking attacks. She was an incredible woman. Alvar the Kingmaker is a story of murder, love, and politics in the tenth century and features some descendants from characters in ‘Queen’.

As I mentioned earlier, Cometh the Hour is the story of Penda the last pagan king, and ‘Sins’ tells the story of the next generation.

I’ve also contributed stories to two anthologies: 1066 Turned Upside Down, and (Historical Stories of) Betrayal.

My nonfiction books are: Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England.

I’ve also written essays, magazine articles and short stories and my story A Poppy Against the Sky was the inaugural winner of the Historical Writers/Dorothy Dunnett Society Award.

Many of us get stuck in our stories at one point or the other? What helps you to break through in these frustrating times?

I take myself off for a walk. I’m lucky that I live in the countryside and even just a ten-minute walk usually clears my mind of all the debris and allows thoughts about writing to come flooding back in.

How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?

Because I write about real-life people I can’t choose the names, but I do alter them, or give my characters nicknames, because the Old English names are not easy on the eye and so many begin with Æthel or Ælf!

How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?

I always do a lot of research, looking at the source documents, reading books about the history etc, but I suppose over time that’s got easier. For my latest novel I was able to rely heavily on the research I’d already done for my history of Mercia, which helped enormously. I also like to research any new information about recent archaeological discoveries, or new thoughts about how people lived and worked.

How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?

Not often, as I’ve pretty much got their lives and characters mapped out before I start writing. Again, though, with this new novel, things were different. I got about halfway through and tried to stick to the script and then I realized that my character, as I’d written him, simply would not have behaved in the way I was asking him to. This realization led to a complete rewrite of that section, which then led to a re-working of a previous section, but the character stayed true to himself, and I’m glad I ‘listened’ to him and changed it.

What would your dream writing space look like?

Honestly, and I know this makes for a boring answer, but I don’t need much. Just my (reference) books and my notebooks to hand, and something to type on – currently a desktop computer. Once I’m writing, my surroundings almost fade away and hours can go by without my noticing. I think a pretty view might actually be a distraction.

What are the most important traits you look for in a friend?

Loyalty, definitely. Mainly though, the thing my closest and most treasured friends have in common is that I always feel better having spent time with them.

If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?

I’d like to be better at Calligraphy. I try really hard, but I think being a left-hander and not an artist works against me.

What might we be surprised to know about you?

That I relax by lifting weights and doing kickboxing.

What makes you angry?

So many things… but I think they can all be summed up in one word: unkindness.

What music soothes your soul?

Pretty much anything from classical (though not opera) to folk, to rock. I used to sing professionally so a good singing session will also make me feel great. My favourite band of all time is The Who, but my ‘record’ collection is vast and varied.

What simple pleasure makes you smile?

Sunshine, wine, and spending time with my family (not necessarily in that order).

 

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CHAT WITH MARK SCOTT PIPER

Mark Piper has been writing professionally his entire adult life. He holds a P.D in English from the University of Oregon and has taught literature and writing at the college level for several years. He has published two novels, You Wish, which earned first place gold in the 2019 American Eagle Book Awards, and the recently released, The Old Block. His short stories have appeared in Short Story America, The CWC Literary Review, and several online literary magazines.

Time to chat with Mark!

What is your latest book?

My second novel, The Old Block, was released in October of 2020. It’s a literary novel, that touches several genres, including coming of age, contemporary, mainstream, mystery, and even a bit of romance.

Tag line: What would you do if you discovered your father might not be the person you always thought he was?

Pitch:

Shortly after his father dies, 24-year-old Nick Castle discovers what seems to be a draft of the novel his father had always hoped to write. But a clue at the end causes Nick to fear that this story of a serious federal crime and escape from the U.S. may not be fiction at all. When Nick sets out to find out the truth about his father’s past, he learns more than he ever expected—about his father and about himself.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?

I’m not really a genre author, the fiction I write—and read—is eclectic and sometimes difficult to fit into any specific genre. Novels have to be categorized for marketing, though. I wrote my debut novel, You Wish, primarily for adults, despite the fact the protagonist is fourteen years old.

Despite my best efforts, the book is labeled young adult and sometimes even children’s books. At the very least it’s YA Crossover. So far all the reviews I’ve received are from adults, and I doubt any teenagers have even read it.

My most recent novel, The Old Block, is a literary novel, but it features large doses of mystery and romance. My current WIP, Until Proven Innocent, has thriller elements laced with comedy, mystery, and even a bit of horror. But it doesn’t strive to hit all the expected/required tropes of those particular genres.

Even though I don’t usually hold to the boundaries of a specific genre, I have a great deal of respect for any authors who do them well. My academic career focused on American and English literature with a specialization in the Nineteenth-Century novel. I suppose that influence is why my preference is to write literary novels, most of which unabashedly steal bits and pieces from other established genres.

Do your books begin with ideas for characters or plots? Something else?

 The starting point for most of my fiction is a “what if” question, as advocated by Stephen King and several others. So, I usually have an clear enough idea of my main character, his or her goals, and where the story is headed. The rest falls into place as I write it. The story develops almost on its own, while I do my best to keep up with the characters. Always there are surprises, but the core idea usually holds true. Not surprisingly, this method can mean I don’t know for sure the details of how the book will end. I know where I want the plot to go, but sometimes I rewrite the final chapter several times before I get it right.

How much of your own personality goes into your characters?

It’s no surprise that many of my protagonists share my world view, my expectations, and my values. But my characters are never me, and I don’t want them to be. In person, I’m inclined to sarcastic humor, perfectly okay when your audience can see your expressions and know your intent. For some readers, though, sarcasm doesn’t translate so well on the page. Readers who know me thought the early drafts of Until Proven Innocent were hilarious. Some of those who didn’t, hated my MC. I’m in the process of softening the sarcasm as I edit.

On the other hand, most of my protagonists aren’t much like each other or me. For instance, Jake Parker (You Wish) is fourteen years old; Nick Castle (The Old Block) is twenty-four; Mac Faulk (Until Proven Innocent) is sixty-two; and Judith McPherson (in another WIP, Beholder) is thirty-four. I’m older than all of them, and I was when I first met them.

What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received? The best? Any advice you’d like to offer to readers?

I’ve been told by instructors and other writers, “If you don’t grab the reader on the first page they won’t read any further.” As an avid reader myself, I know that’s not true, but many still hold onto this rule with both hands. It applies well enough for certain genres—mystery, detective, thriller—but not all. Given my background in literary fiction, I have no problem not having to step over a dead body to start the journey.

Like most writers I’ve combed the how-to books, studied the authors I respect, and sought out advice in conferences and critique groups. The problem is, expert advice can be sometimes confusing, sometimes absolute, and sometimes contradictory—e.g., always use “said” for dialogue attribution because it’s an “invisible word” vs. never use “said” because it’s hackneyed and lacks imagination. So, seek out expert writing advice for sure but ferret out what’s most useful to you. Just be wary of absolutes. We’d all be wise to take Pablo Picasso’s advice, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

Yes, you need to have a pretty good idea of how your story is going to end, but in my experience, the ending of a novel always ends up being tweaked considerably. You need a solid grip on where your MCs are going and how they will manage to get there, but I’ve found it best to not hold on to that preconception too tightly. Strong characters soon develop minds of their own and can take your story in directions you don’t expect. And that’s usually a good thing.

Regarding titles, it’s easy enough to come up with a working title and it doesn’t matter much how bad that early title is, but I’ve come up with the final version of the title for each of my books well after the early drafts have been completed. The opportunity to see and experience the whole story from beginning to end gives you a perspective you don’t have early on. My original title for my debut novel was The Final Wish, which seemed okay until someone at a conference told me they assumed I was writing about a dying teenager. The title that went to press is You Wish, a better reflection of my protagonist and the story. Trial and error to the rescue.

What else have you written?

 The first full-length manuscript I wrote was my Ph.D. dissertation on the fiction of Stephen Crane years ago. An academic book, sadly lacking in character arcs, plot twists, or car chases. I worked as a freelance writer for many years, creating corporate marketing materials, internet sites, and video scripts—many or which I also produced and directed. These days I focus almost exclusively on my fiction.

My fist published novel, You Wish, won first-place gold in the 2019 American Eagle Book Awards. More than a dozen of my short stories have appeared in print and online literary journals.

Do you have any advice for first-time authors?

New writers should take extreme pride in completing a first draft of a novel. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, and it’s definitely exhilarating to type “The End” on your manuscript. But you quickly learn you haven’t reached the end at all. It can take a while for first-time writers to fully understand when their work is “finished”—it certainly did for me. The short answer may well be “it’s never finished.” Most published authors find edits they wish they’d made even years after their book has been published.

That said, editing is where the refinement happens. There’s a palpable sense of pride and accomplishment when you see how much better your narrative has been improved. It’s also important to hire a professional editor and proofreader—and listen to what they tell you—before you start the publishing process or query an agent. Neither excellent grammar or flawless punctuation will save a weak manuscript, but the lack of either can seriously undermine a good one.

While you’re writing, get as much feedback as you can from readers who aren’t friends and family. Join a critique group—in-person, online, or both—it’s a great way to get that feedback. Finding a group of fellow writers that fits you, your book, and your personality may take some searching, but it’s well worth the effort. And the input comes from people who are focused on writing, same as you.

How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?

By far, the most researched of my novels so far is The Old Block. It’s a tale of two journeys. The manuscript written by Nick Castle’s father takes place in the ‘70s during the student anti-Vietnam War protests, and the majority of that narrative takes place in Central America. I experienced the student unrest personally, but I researched the time extensively to make sure I had the details right. The whole time I was working on the first draft, my desk was full of maps of El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. southwest—places I’d never been—to help me show the geographical particulars accurately. I tend to research details while I’m writing. The information is only an online search away.

The rest of the novel covers Nick’s quest through Oregon and Washington. That meant more maps. I lived in Oregon and Washington many years, but having the maps in front of me helped me describe Nick’s routes and to understand driving time between locations. Also, I retraced Nick’s journey in person when I followed Nick’s path through Oregon and Washington on my way to settle my dad’s affairs after he passed away. The novel includes some real locations, real towns and cities, real distances and time frames, and in the end, I hope those details helped make it possible for readers to better experience the journey along with Nick and me.

Do you feel your latest book is your personal favorite or one of your previous novels?

Tough question. Sort of like being asked to pick which one of your children you love most. My first published novel, You Wish, won an award and has received good reviews. The idea behind it has been with me since the ‘80s when I first wrote it as a screenplay. Over time I revisited the concept as a novel, and You Wish is the result. I’m not sure I’m ready to call it my favorite, but my editor loves it best. It’s certainly the novel I’ve spent the most time with, and it still affects me emotionally when I reread it. Plus, did I mention it won an award?

Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?

I’m definitely an early bird. My alarm goes off each morning at 5:00 a.m., and that means I have a quiet work environment every day for four hours or so, until the rest of the household is awake. I have an office where I do my writing. It’s my creative sanctuary, my work cave. Afternoons are usually full of errands and family, but the mornings are mine. If I’m really on a roll with something new, or I’m editing a manuscript, I sometimes go at it again in the evenings. You have to strike when the iron is hot, as they say. Whoever they are.

I know admitting this may get me kicked out of the writer’s union, but I haven’t had a cup of coffee for more than twenty years. But I’m not completely decaffeinated; my morning ritual though includes a chai latte or two. I’ll stalk the cupboards for a snack every so often while I’m working, but I suspect that may be more avoidance behavior than hunger.

We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?

Hiring a professional cover designer may be as important as hiring a professional editor and proofreader. Certain genres require specific elements and a particular cover look—historical romance and horror come to mind—but I write literary novels for the most part, so the cover options are greater. When I’m online or in a bookstore, and I come across a book with a weak cover I might pass it by. I’m not a snob about it, but first impressions count, and a lot of people assume that a novel with an amateur-looking cover is also full of amateur writing.

For The Old Block, I searched for a cover designer on Reedsy, by posting my book details and personal cover preferences. A designer named “Nick C.” responded from London with a reasonable estimate, and I liked his work. As it turned out, his full name was Nick Castle—the same name as my novel’s main character. Too much of a coincidence to overlook. I had to hire him. Bonus: the cover looks great. It’s the designer’s unique concept and far from what I had envisioned, but I loved it from the start. It reflects the dilemma at the heart of the novel. This is why you hire a professional.

Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?

Part if the excitement writing fiction is trying to keep up with my characters as the navigate the plot maze I’ve set up for them. They don’t control me as much as show me a better path or offer me insights into their personalities. So, things change as I get to know my characters better. The more I’m able to “become” each character, the more fleshed-out they become, and the better I’m able to see how they would react, rather than how I thought they should react. This is especially true of antagonists—with whom I usually have less in common, and have to make more of an effort to understand in three-dimensions.

A lot of authors are frustrated by readers who don’t understand how important reviews are? What would you say to a reader who doesn’t think his or her review matters?

I didn’t understand why reviews are so important until I published You Wish. Now I know that the sheer number of reviews can be the difference between success and failure, especially for independently published authors. Here’s why reviews are so important. After 20-25 reviews, Amazon may include a book in “You Might Like” and “Also Bought” promotions. After 50-70 reviews, Amazon may highlight the book and include it in its newsletter. Both of these promotional lifts can boost book sales and author recognition. It’s simple common sense really. The wider the exposure for an author or a book, the better chance of a success.

For a playwright, even a stand-up comic, the audience response is immediate. That’s not the case for those of us who write fiction. What we hear is a resounding silence, unless we have a chance for a book signing or an open mic. So, receiving reviews is a crucial way to break that silence. Your review is more than a pat on the back for the author. It provides exposure and some kind words that might just cause another person to pick up the novel. If you’re a shy person who’s afraid of being judged for your grammar and punctuation, don’t worry. That’s not going to happen. Plus you get better the more reviews you do.

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

My partner and I currently live in Santa Rosa, California, about ninety minutes north of San Francisco. Yes, that’s smack dab in the middle of the raging forest fires that regularly devastated the area in recent years. So, I’d love to live somewhere safer, even just an hour south would be better. I grew up in Washington and spent many years in Oregon. Either would be okay, and these days Canada has some appeal, though. For now, we choose to stay close to family.

 Care to brag about your family?

Oh, yeah. I have four adult children—three daughters and a son—two grandsons and one granddaughter (with another on the way), and a great-granddaughter. Nearly all have settled near me in Northern California. One daughter is a pediatric nurse, another is a veterinary nurse, another is an executive recruiter, and my son is Director of Marketing for Autodesk Construction Solutions, and my oldest grandson is a realtor. I’m blessed that my partner is an excellent editor. She plays a key role in the quality of my writing. Plus, she’s a lot of fun to be around.

If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?

This is easy. I’ve always wished I had musical talent. I am in awe of people who can play the guitar, piano, harmonica, any instrument actually. Happily, some of my children have those skills, but I don’t. I enjoy listening to good music and talented vocalists as much as I love settling in with a good novel. But at this stage (and age), it’s clear enough that I’m destined to be an enthusiastic, if somewhat jealous, spectator.

What music soothes your soul?

I listen to a wide range of music, but I especially love blues, reggae, classic rock, and folk. That may date me a bit, but the music from your formative years stays with you like an old friend. I remember when my dad was in his nineties, he used his computer almost exclusively to play solitaire and listen to swing bands. He was a fan of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. I thought it was quaint, but understandable. Now I guess I’ve become him, only with more sophisticated computer games and John Prine, Bob Marley, and B.B. King in my ears.

What simple pleasure makes you smile?

Spending time with my toddler grandson as he learns words and discovers the world. Enjoying a good laugh and long philosophical discussions with my partner. Watching my adult children succeed in life and overcome their own challenges. Discovering a new five-star review online. Meeting a stranger who loved my novel. Looking at my own novels on my bookshelf sitting there among the masters as if they belong.

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CHAT WITH CATHERINE MEYRICK

Catherine Meyrick writes historical fiction with a touch of romance. Her stories weave fictional characters into the gaps within the historical record – tales of ordinary people who are very much men and women of their time, yet in so many ways are like us today.

Catherine grew up in regional Victoria, but has lived all her adult life in Melbourne, Australia. Until recently she worked as a customer service librarian at her local library. She has a Master of Arts in history and is also an obsessive genealogist.

Time to chat with Catherine!

What is your latest book?

My latest book is The Bridled Tongue. It is a standalone novel published in 2020. It is set in England in the 1580s and tells the story of Alyce Bradley, a young woman who agrees to an arranged marriage with a privateer, not because she particularly wishes for it but because she has no other options. It shows the way she grows into her role of manor wife and faces dangers not only from her husband’s enemies but her own past when jealousies stir up long buried resentments and old slanders concerning her relationship with her grandmother who was thought by some to be a witch.

The novel is set a time when these sorts of slanders, combined with the beliefs of the time, could result in an accusation of witchcraft. In a witchcraft case normal evidential rules were set aside and the most dubious hearsay accepted which could be enough to bring a person to the gallows. The backdrop is the threat of immanent invasion by the Spanish in 1588 – the Spanish Armada. It also touches on issues such as sibling rivalry and jealousy and the corrosive effect on women’s relationships when they are valued mainly for their ability to produce healthy children.

Do you write under a pen name? If so, can you tell us why?

I intended to write under my own name, Catherine Merrick, but found that there was another author who had written many, many books on curtain making already using that name. I thought my books would just get lost in amongst all those curtains so I decided to use a variant of Merrick. Some of my forebears used the form Meyrick in the 18th century and there is a branch of the family in the US that still use that. It sounds the same and I think the spelling makes it a little bit more memorable.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?

I grew up in a family where history was important, in a town that was conscious of its past – Ballarat. Ballarat has fine 19th century buildings, statues of long dead notables along the main street which is wide enough to turn a bullock team. It was one of the first places where gold was discovered in the early 1850s in Australia and is the site of the Eureka Stockade, an armed rebellion by gold miners objecting to the cost of a miner’s licence (taxation without representation) which ultimately resulted in the Victorian Electoral Act 1856 which mandated suffrage for adult male colonists.

My father read a lot of historical fiction and my mother biographies of historical figures. Mum would often read out interesting or amusing snippets from the books she was reading. She was also a meticulous family researcher and her stories about her forbears brought these long dead people to life. And then I went to university and took a double major in history. I never considered writing about the present and think I would struggle to write something contemporary – I feel that I understand the people of the past far better than many today.

After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?

I am not a very good judge of my own work though I do not worry much about that until have a respectable draft. I then get a small number of beta readers to look at it. I don’t automatically accept what they say but if a number say the same thing I do pay attention. After revising the draft taking their suggestions and criticisms into account, I then send it to a professional structural editor. I have used Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial both for The Bridled Tongue and for my current work in progress. Her advice is excellent regarding the structure of the novel, characterization and what, perhaps, is missing from the story – those things I haven’t written about that a reader would want to know. I think The Bridled Tongue has far more depth because of Jenny’s advice.

Do you ever act out your scenes while writing to help you gauge how authentic it feels?

I do sometimes. Usually, it involves getting up from the desk and pacing around the room to see if what I have written feels natural. I also read dialogue aloud to see if it sounds plausible and is not stilted. Occasionally, though, when I am out walking and thinking out a problem with a character, I find I am actually in character – striding along the street, my rapier heavy on my hip. Fortunately, I generally walk in the early morning when few people are about.

Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

By the time I sit down to write I know the general shape of the story and I do know how it will end. Early on I tried writing by the seat of my pants but found that it doesn’t work for me, I run out of steam and don’t know where to go.

The title isn’t as important to me and with both published books, and the one I am working on at present, the name has changed several times. I have been told I come up with ridiculous titles at times. At one stage The Bridled Tongue was called ‘The Turtles Cannot Sing’ to reflect something of Alyce’s relationship with her husband. This is a line from a poem quoted in the novel, ‘A Modest Love’ by Sir Edward Dyer (1543-1607), an Elizabethan courtier. (The turtles referred to are turtle doves, the symbol of true love and fidelity to the Elizabethans.) In the end, I changed it to ‘The Bridled Tongue’ to reflect Alyce as she is at the beginning of the novel, but it is also a recognition of those in the story whose tongues should definitely be bridled.

My work in progress is called ‘Unspoken Promises’ at present but it will definitely have to change because any promises made are definitely spoken.

What else have you written?

Apart from short stories and poetry early on, I have one other novel, Forsaking All Other. This novel is also set in the 1580s – it begins in 1585 and follows the struggles of a young widow and waiting woman, Bess Stoughton, who discovers that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and manages to convince her father to allow her a year to find a husband with whom she has some hope of happiness. Bess’s domestic concerns are set against the background of simmering Catholic plots to unseat Queen Elizabeth, and the involvement of English forces under the Earl of Leicester in the Netherlands in support of Dutch resistance to Spanish rule.

How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?

Historical novels require a lot of research. As both Forsaking All Other and The Bridled Tongue are set in the 1580s, it’s necessary to understand and recreate a period that was different from ours in so many ways. It is not only a matter of ensuring that the story fits into the historical timeline and that the details of clothing, housing and the minutiae of daily life are correct; it is as important that the characters are presented as people of their time, not modern people in period dress. While we cannot ignore the wonderful development of the English language over the intervening centuries, I do try to avoid terms coined in the twentieth century. This means, in the later stages of development of a novel, l go through the text highlighting and checking words that feel modern to make sure that I’m not using thoroughly modern terms.

I studied this period in detail when I was at university and have kept up my interest through reading newly released books and journal articles so I had a solid understanding of the period when I sat down to write.

‘Unspoken Promises’ is set in Hobart, Tasmania between 1878 and 1883 and because it is based on family history, I already had a deal of knowledge of the social conditions of the time but there are also so many things I don’t know such as the way the court and prison system worked then. So, I continue to research through contemporary newspapers, monographs and articles, and archival research. I am limited at present to the archival material that has been digitized but I am hoping to get to Hobart early next year to check a few things and to take a walk on Mount Wellington, the impressive mountain that stands guard over Hobart.

How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?

Because I plan before I write, my characters don’t often surprise me. What has happened in both Forsaking All Other and The Bridled Tongue is that unplanned characters have sprung to life fully formed and made themselves essential to the plot, taking over what I had intended to have other secondary characters do. It hasn’t happened yet with ‘Unspoken Promises’ but there is still plenty of time.

We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?

I think that good cover design is essential. The cover gives the reader the first impression, and is the thing that will make the reader pick the book up. If the cover doesn’t engage the reader, he or she is unlikely to get as far as reading the blurb.

I have no skill in this area so I have used a professional cover designer, the talented Jenny Quinlan again. Professional cover design can be expensive, but I would say that it is well worth the cost. I see it as a form of advertising, particularly when the book is new.

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

I currently live in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. I have lived in this part of Melbourne since I first came down here from Ballarat, aged seventeen. House blocks are smaller than in the leafy east of Melbourne but we still have trees and birds visiting our backyards every day, and I can wake up to magpies carolling just like people living in the country. We have a wonderful lake made around 1915 by blocking a local creek. It is surrounded by a nature reserve which is a haven to a wide range of native birds. The population is drawn from nearly everywhere on earth and we all seem to rub along quite well.

Hobart is a place I wouldn’t mind moving to. It is where my father was born and grew up. We didn’t visit there while Dad was alive but over the last twelve years, I have visited Hobart regularly, partly undertaking family research. Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia and is stunningly beautiful. It is brisk in winter as it does snow sometimes. There is nothing between the south of Tasmania and Antarctica and you can see the Aurora Australis from the south of the island. Apart from the physical beauty of the place, the pace of life seems slower plus there are many wonderful galleries and restaurants. Hobart was first settled by Europeans in 1804 and many of the old Georgian buildings remain, so history is never far away.

If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?

I would love the ability to sing. I cannot hold a note and never have been able to. I was the girl in the school choir always singing off-key who the teacher could never find. I would mouth the words when she walked along the row and, somehow, she was never able to work it out who it was.

What music soothes your soul?

It depends on my mood. I like a wide range of music from classical and early music through to folk and country & western but I think Baroque music is the most calming. I particularly like Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Dido and Aeneas. It is wonderfully calming music and has cured headaches for me.

If you could add a room onto your current home, what would you put in it?

I would add a room in the roof with windows with a view of the horizon so I could catch both the sunrise and sunset. I would also have a ladder I could pull up so no one could disturb me. I would have a desk under one of the windows, my collection of non-fiction and reference books, a comfortable armchair to sit and read in and tea and coffee making bits and pieces. I am really describing my ideal ‘room of one’s own’.

And while we are renovating, perhaps I can add a lap pool along one side of the yard.

What simple pleasure makes you smile?

I love watching our cat. My desk is beneath a window that looks out into the backyard and I can see her out there sunning herself, stretched out sleeping on the garden seat, stalking invisible creatures or sitting still like an Egyptian statue. I love the elegance of form and the aloofness of cats.

 

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CHAT WITH JOHN M. TAYLOR

 

John M. Taylor was raised in the East of England. He claims he spent more time at school daydreaming great adventures than studying, then at college he qualified as a design draughtsman. He has lived in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia. John has been married to Elisabeth for 46 years, they had a son who they lost to a brain tumor. He has written three books and appeared as a regular guest on radio. He now calls Perth, Western Australia home.

Time to chat with John!

What is your latest book?

Here Tomorrow, Gone Today. Although finished, it is yet to be available but I hope it will be as soon as I find a publisher. It’s fiction based on real places and factual history. Five children go missing from the village without a trace. Part takes place in the early 20th century while some is located in the early 13th Century. It’s an intriguing mystery laced with suspense, hopefully keeping the reader guessing to the end.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?

The novel I Will Find You certainly found me but it is the genre I would have chosen. I read Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphries and became sensitized to the plight of Child Migrants. I later met some ex-child migrants, now adults, and listened to their harrowing stories of separation, lies, exploitation and abuse. At the same time I saw how it had affected their entire lives. Their treatment was denied by authorities for decades when they wanted their story told. By opening their hearts to me I realized that I had been chosen to tell this story. That said, I Will Find You is not all about Child Migration and their harrowing treatment, but follows the inspirational epic journey of one courageous boy who passed through the system and later sets out to find his mother.

Do your books begin with ideas for characters or plots? Something else?

They begin with a plot which can change. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow is the result of my long standing speculation; History records that in the 13th Century King John lost his wealth in the tidal marshes of East Anglia. Now drained, it is fertile farmland, many attempts have been made to find these treasures but nothing has been recovered. So I question if it was it really lost? Who could have taken it? Where was it hidden? Where is it now? Although to be written as a novel that was the original plot. The characters came when I entwined the mystery of missing children. They, with other characters created emotion, reader involvement and interest so changing the main plot to ‘what happened to the missing children?’ So I’m prepared to follow where the story takes me.

 Often, while I’m writing, I’m surprised when a word pops into my head that I never use in real life … and sometimes, it’s a word I didn’t even realize I knew. Yet there it is, wanting to become a part of my novel. Does this ever happen to you? If so, what do you make of it?

Yes, quite often a sophisticated word jumps into my head but I rarely use it and tend to write words I would speak in a typical conversation. I like to keep it simple and make it easy for ’everyone’ read. I personally dislike the need to break the flow by reaching for a dictionary to discover what the author is saying. There is also a danger that in dialog an overly sophisticated or uncommon word could be out of character for the person speaking.

How much of your own personality goes into your characters?

It depends on the character. But yes, much of my own style, opinion and emotion is written into some characters. I often imagine myself in their position and ask how I would react. So it becomes inevitable that my own personality is included. Other characters are based on people I know or have known. I try not to invent personalities and prefer the authenticity of real people, they are always much more interesting and believable.

Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

Yes, I need to map out the basic plot in my head first and know that I will have a memorable ending. Sometimes I write the last chapter first. That way it helps to remind me where I’m heading with the story and how to use characters along the way. Even if the plot changes I still plan the ending. I believe endings are important as it’s the last piece anyone reads and will influence their opinion of the work. The title can come much later and be tailored (pardon the pun) to what has been written.

What else have you written?

 My writing began with commercial instruction and training manuals, then after retiring, newspaper and magazine articles. My first book Raising Fen Tigers, is a book of simple verse depicting life in a specific era while growing up in an English village immediately after WW2. Some verses are humorous while others are nostalgic and a few sad ones are thrown in. They describe true events, characters and some are impressions of life seen through a child’s eyes. Collectively they give an insight to the village and the era.

Have you ever written characters that you truly despise?

Oh yes! It’s easy to create negative personalities but I tend not to. I encourage the reader to form their own opinion of a character by providing their words and actions without an opinion. In that way the reader’s imagined character will always be correct for them.

Authors, especially Indies, are constantly trying to understand why some authors sell well while their talented fellow authors have a hard time of it. It’s an ongoing conundrum. What do you make of it?

I believe it’s about marketing and a lot of luck. A very ordinary book can sell well if promoted properly, and a great book can fail for the lack of good marketing. Many new authors go to vanity publishers who make impressive promises about all the wonderful promotional things they will do, but sadly few deliver. There is a lot of luck in who reads the book and who they know or can influence to advance it. But we can, to some degree, create our own luck by being active. I believe the industry needs a complete makeover. Perhaps I should write a book about it, but who would publish it?

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. We just have ‘ideas in waiting.’ However I admit there are times when I wonder how best to continue or link events. When this happens I simply stop working on that part, maybe for a day or two. Then the answer comes at the most unexpected moment. For me it’s a bit like failing to recall a place name at a given moment, then later without prompting it comes to mind. It was there all the time, just waiting for me.

 Would you like to write a short poem for us?

 This from Raising Fen Tigers:  A Little Boys Questions.

Why do sprouts make me stink?

The same reason as beans I think.

Why do onions make your breath smell?

When Granddad has had one you can always tell.

 

Grown-ups say they want better for us.

But when I ask they just make a fuss.

When I want something I’m told to say “please.”

But when I do I’m told “no.” Is that to tease?

 

How do birds stay up without flapping their wings?

They must be hanging on invisible strings.

Where do stars go during the day?

Hiding behind the clouds I dare say.

 

Why do dogs smell another dog’s bum?

I suppose it’s their idea of fun.

Why does my dog lick his willy?

It’s so rude and I think it’s silly.

 

I try hard not to, but why do I wet the bed?

I’ll grow out of it one day someone said.

I yawn when I’m not tired? That’s not right.

Worst of all Mum says, “Early to bed tonight.”

Are you an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert? Have you changed throughout your life?

I think I must have been an ambivert when a child. There were many times when I recoiled into myself, probably as a result of being bullied and a violent home life, but I don’t think it was natural for me. Later, as I gained confidence I enjoyed being with people and sought sincere friendships, which I still hold dear today. Now I’m definitely an extrovert. My dear wife Elisabeth says I’ll approach and talk to anyone without hesitation, which is true. I have a lot of fun at book signings. I specially enjoy chatting with ethnic people and get on well with them. People can be so very interesting, they add to the richness of life and one’s writing.

If you could duplicate the knowledge from any single person’s head and have it magically put into your own brain, whose knowledge would you like to have? And why?

That’s easy, Elisabeth’s knowledge. Her upbringing was quite different to my own having been born and partly brought up in Vienna, Austria. Her knowledge of European history, people and cultures is extensive. She speaks English, German, Spanish, Russian and Hungarian fluently, and gets by with French. If I had her knowledge and those languages, I’d be “like a dog in a forest.” I’d also love to have her quick intuition.  It may sound odd but I would also like see the world from a woman’s perspective as well as my own. Now that would be interesting!

If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?

I have great admiration for people who can play a musical instrument really well. I watch and listen in awe and rhetorically whisper, “How does anyone get to be that good? It would be amazing to be able to play like that.” I think it’s why I enjoy Bluegrass. Not just because it’s happy, foot tapping music, but because it requires enormous skill and talent. In East Tennessee I watched live bands in amazement and was told, “These guys are given an instrument as soon as they can walk.” Well I’m now giving it a try and bought myself a Dobro earlier this year.

What upsets you?

I get frustrated with arrogance in any form. Arrogant people often close their eyes and hearts to truth and reality. They make a decision to remain ignorant and often adopt a superior attitude while doing so. Sadly, they are the losers because they rarely expand their minds. It’s almost impossible to reason with an arrogant person because they lack an open mind. I have a pet saying: “What we know is 100% of what we know, but arrogance will have us believe that what we know is 100% of all there is to know.”

I get very upset at cruelty to children. Through my own experiences as a child I know it can be terrifying, and much of the time they suffer but don’t understand why. Whilst researching I Will Find You I saw how mistreatment can detrimentally affect an innocent young life forever.

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THE SUM OF OUR SORROWS

 

 

Hi, Friends:

I’m happy to announce the publication of my tenth book, a contemporary novel, The Sum of our Sorrows.

People often ask me how I get an idea for a particular book. Sometimes, I’m able to be very precise in my response and at other times, it’s not as easy.

I first got the idea for “this novel” well over a decade ago. I put those words in quotes, because then, it was a very different book, and what swirled about in my brain, I wasn’t ready to put down “on paper.” Not then.

In November of 2019, I finally felt ready to write the story, which has gone through quite a metamorphosis in my head before I wrote the first word. My original idea was to paint an intimate portrait of a relationship between two specific characters.

Years after my initial concept, I decided that the female protagonist would follow the storyline of song lyrics I wrote in another lifetime. My song, “Dear Sweet Melanie” was about a teenager whose mother had died and her entire life was lost because her father forced her to take on the role of mother to her sisters. The song (later recorded by a friend) was only mean​t​ to paint a mini portrait, whereas the story in this book is far more expansive and stars a very different person.

Lily Sheppard, the main character in The Sum of our Sorrows, has a similar story, but Lily is stronger than the tragic character of Melanie. Lily’s story is also more modern than my melodramatic song, which was more akin to Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” for those of you who can remember that far back.

As I began to write Lily’s story, it became clear that this book would be​ about the entire Sheppard family, far more complex and nuanced than I had intended. I needed to tell the story of this family, front and center, and that all of the plots and plot twists I’d had for the end of the book had to be gone. They were no longer relevant and no longer mattered. The Sum of our Sorrows had morphed into something very different … good different, and very soon it became a story I was passionate to tell.

In today’s world, where so many of us have lost loved ones and are having trouble moving on, and dragging our grief like heavy chains, The Sum of our Sorrows, as it is now, became a very important one for me to write.

Here’s the blurb:

In an idyllic suburb in Northern California, tragedy strikes the Sheppard family when Abby, the mother of three daughters and wife to Dalton, is killed in a car accident. Charlotte, the middle daughter, is in the car with her mother and survives without physical injury but remains deeply scarred on the inside.

Dalton tells Lily, his eldest daughter, that she must sacrifice long-awaited college plans and put her life on hold to take care of her sisters. Lily is torn between her devotion to family and an increasing need to find her place in the world — but how can she leave, knowing her family may crumble? Will her presence eventually cause more problems than it resolves?

The Sum of our Sorrows reveals how the aftermath of a family tragedy can precipitate sorrows never imagined. It is a tale of grief, hope, healing, coming-of-age, friendship, and survival. It is also a love story of two broken souls living through pain in search of better days and the renewal of one’s spirit.

The Sum of our Sorrows is available in paperback and Kindle editions. It is also free to read in Kindle Unlimited.

The Sum of our Sorrows Amazon page

 

 

 

 

CHAT WITH BJØRN LARSSEN

Bjørn Larssen is a Norse heathen made in Poland, but mostly located in a Dutch suburb, except for his heart which he lost in Iceland. Born in 1977, he self-published his first graphic novel at the age of seven in a limited edition of one, following this achievement several decades later with his first book containing multiple sentences and winning awards he didn’t design himself. His writing is described as ‘dark’ and ‘literary’, but he remains incapable of taking anything seriously for more than 60 seconds.

Bjørn has a degree in mathematics and has worked as a graphic designer, a model, a bartender, and a blacksmith (not all at the same time). His hobbies include sitting by open fires, dressing like an extra from Vikings, installing operating systems, and dreaming about living in a log cabin in the north of Iceland. He owns one (1) husband and is owned by one (1) neighbourhood cat.

Time to chat with Bjørn!

What is your latest book?

Children, Norse adult literary fantasy, is a retelling of selected Norse myths through the eyes of Magni, the son of Thor, and Maya, the foster daughter of Freya and Freyr. I didn’t like how Neil Gaiman did it in his Norse Mythology, so I decided to do it myself, then it kind of escalated and became this dark, violent, funny thing… exactly like the lore itself. Only with more words. And mint tea.

Is Children part of a series?

Yes. There are nine worlds in the Norse lore. In the series the Gods and their subjects will discover that it’s possible to travel between the Nine and good ol’ Earth, which gave the series its title – The Ten Worlds. Where Children is mythic fantasy, the second book in the series, Land, will be a re-telling of the discovery of Iceland based on historical sources, only with some Gods added.

Once those two are out, I intend to move on to a series of novellas called How to Be a God, which will take us back to the beginning of the Universe, when the Gods didn’t know their own job descriptions yet. They might all fall under the umbrella title The Ten Worlds or not, depending on how confusing it all becomes.

What are the special challenges in writing a series?

Each book, especially the first one, locks certain things in place. To go with a random example, if in book one I make it clear that the protagonist can’t use magic, in book three this limitation must either stay in place or I must come up with a convincing explanation why things have changed. Once I get to, say, book five I may find out that I am stuck because of something I have written years ago without giving it enough thought. I have already made peace with the fact that in a few years I will probably have to rewrite both Children and Land to get rid of omissions and/or inconsistencies. The literary equivalent of Starbucks cups and plastic bottles in the last season of Game of Thrones.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?

The first book, Storytellers, came to me in a dream – a cliché, but also truth. The story wouldn’t go away for years until I finally decided to write it down. It turned out to be historical suspense, making me an accidental historical fiction writer. Now I am working on novels, novellas, and stories based on my faith – I am a Norse heathen writing fanfic about my Gods! So it’s all going to be “Norse mythic-ish something something”.

By the way, before I actually got to writing anything I imagined myself as a rom-com writer. I tried and found out I couldn’t do it. I have a lot of respect for those who can. It’s too difficult for me, I overthink everything and I am yet to write a relationship between two characters that isn’t toxic in at least one way.

Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?

I use Scrivener, which is special software for writers, allowing to split the text into chapters, scenes, and sections. This is less useful for me than I expected, because it turns out that I can’t write out of order. I have spoken to a neurologist who suspects that I was born with neurological memory damage, which might explain both my inability to jump between the scenes and the fact that I don’t revise, but rewrite everything. The published version of Storytellers was its 21st draft, Children went through 29. Every time I ended up going from the beginning to the end. This is neither a healthy nor a recommended way to write, but apparently that’s how I roll.

How many unwritten books are in your head? How do you decide which ones come to life now and which ones stay on the back burner?

Now that I finished Children I should be starting on Land, but it requires lots of research and I am lazy. I started a few of the How to Be a God novellas, but haven’t completed any of them, except in my head. I have a non-fiction project in mind as well, a primer to Norse faith. How to Be a Heathen 😉 (Oh wait, this is a good title. Going to write it down.)

Last year I spent a few months working on another book that would form a part of the same series – The Age of Fire. After a few drafts and one round of beta reads I put it on the back burner, because I realised that I couldn’t do it justice quite yet. The Age of Fire is also going to be the grand finale of the series and starting a series with the last book seems too random even for someone as scatterbrained as me.

I also want to make the lesser known Icelandic Sagas more popular, write fiction based on Icelandic history in the Viking times, plus there’s a cosy mystery I am supposed to be writing with a Well-Known Writer Who Wishes To Remain Anonymous… If anything, I’d like to have a few less ideas. And more self-discipline.

Do you ever act out your scenes while writing to help you gauge how authentic it feels?

One-on-one fights. I’ll go to my husband and say, “my love, I need you to lie down and when I sit on your chest you will roll to the side, throwing me off. You have to land on top of me, choke me with one hand and grab my wrist with the other, so I can’t stab you… crap, I have one leg too many. Head butt me in the nose? Can you do that for me?” That sort of thing. I assure you nobody gets hurt, except for my characters later. I call this “choreography”.

(I think I just understood why I can’t write romance.)

How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?

Maya in Children surprised me by being in it at all. She was originally a character in The Age of Fire, the book I shelved. Children was supposed to be all about Magni, but Maya just decided to move in. I tried to write her out and she wouldn’t leave! Quite often I feel like I’m not writing her dialogue, I’m writing it down. And the worst thing she has done to me… She was claustrophobic since the very first draft. She revealed to me why that was on draft 28, causing me to add a very strong scene… and rewrite everything again.

The characters dictate the plot most of the time. I work really hard on fleshing them out, but the side effect is that sometimes when I need them to do something, the character just gives me a look and says “it’s so cute when you have ideas”. Half of the Children rewrites were caused by Maya deciding that she wouldn’t do what I wanted her to do, no negotiating, just nope.

What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received? The best? Any advice you’d like to offer to readers?

The worst – you must write every day to be a Real Writer, even if you know you’re writing rubbish. It’s not exactly motivating when writing becomes a chore. Like blocking an hour every day to feel horrible about myself. Especially as I know when it’s not going well.

The best – once your editor is done with the book, sent it to a proofreader who hasn’t seen the text before. You’re still going to end up with a typo or two, but there is hope there won’t be eight on the first page. At some point our eyes begin to slide over the text rather than read it, we know it too well. And the last thing you want are twenty reviews opening with “I could not continue reading past page five, even though the book showed promise, because it was filled with typos…”.

My advice – don’t read your reviews on Goodreads/Amazon, but if you really want to, don’t engage with them. When I get a blog review I always make sure to thank the blogger for their time and work, whether they liked the book or not. But Goodreads is for readers, who have the right to their opinions, no matter what they are. Look up “Yvonthia Goodreads” to find out why I’m saying this.

Do you know anyone who has ever received any auto DM on Twitter (with a link) who was happy about it?

Absolutely not. If you’re using Twitter, please, please, PLEASE don’t send automated DMs. I made a mistake once of responding to the person, saying that I didn’t appreciate the link, and he berated me for not appreciating his help. Since then I report auto DMs as spam and block, no matter who sends them.

Would you like to write a short poem for us?

I don’t think I can

Because I’m not a poet

I love haikus, though.

If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?

Driving. I know. I spent most of my adult life living in Amsterdam, where owning a car is a liability rather than an advantage. The real reason, though, is that I honestly can’t imagine how people manage to look in all directions at once and change gears and use the steering wheel and do the other, uh, drive-y things.

What makes you angry?

The simultaneous existence of billionaires and people who can’t afford food or life-saving medicine.

What’s your favorite film of all times? Favorite book?

The Hours and The Hours (by Michael Cunningham). I re-read and re-watch both at least once per year.

 

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